That stark message was joined by a more self-involved-sounding soliloquy from Jordan: "What if my name wasn't in lights?" Michael said in the ad as he stood alone in a gym, shooting one free throw after another. "Can you imagine it?...I can."
Jordan doesn't like to do commercials right before the playoffs, but when he saw the copy, he thought the message conformed with his growing ambivalence toward celebrity. Jordan says that what he really wanted to say in the spot was, "Aside from all the commercialism, the game's still fun." The ad also conveyed a get-off-my-back attitude, and the ingratitude some perceived in the spot was complicated by Jordan's furious reaction to reports that he had lost huge sums gambling on golf.
Just before one postseason game Jordan laced up a pair of the 1994 Air Jordan prototypes during a morning practice, and from a lone, murky photograph of the new shoes in one local newspaper, 300 people called the Chicago Nike Town to ask when the shoes would be in stock. However, in stores like the Essex House of Fashion, Air Jordan was taking a hit. "It's not just the gambling stuff," said Roth. "The kids talk about Michael's problems, but for two months it's been all Barkley. The Air Force Max is hot, and from this level it looks like Air Jordan is finished."
Mourning had finished the regular season ranked 15th in the NBA in scoring, 14th in rebounds and fourth in blocked shots, and he had waited patiently to star in his own Nike commercial. But when the company executives saw the creative package offered by Wieden & Kennedy, the Portland agency that has done most of Nike's advertising, they told the copywriters to try again. So Mourning entered the playoffs without a signature commercial. Despite his brilliant efforts, in particular against the New York Knicks in prime time during the second round, he would have to wait to be elevated to a household name.
In late July, Steve Miller and the other Nike sports marketers were still jockeying to sign Chris Webber and Anfernee Hardaway to shoe contracts. Jamal Mashburn had taken a $6 million dollar contract plus a red Ferrari to go with the Italian shoe company Fila. Bobby Hurley had signed up with the Foot Locker retail chain, which had promised him a signature shoe as part of its new ITZ (In the Zone) line.
The University of Miami joined the Nike "total university relationship" camp, and as part of a deal that would mean several hundred thousand dollars to the school—during the same week the Air Carnivore arrived at the Essex House of Fashion—the University of North Carolina joined the new-look Nike fold. Longtime Converse coach Dean Smith reported that he had put the matter to a vote among his senior players.
Meanwhile, projections of single-digit growth in 1994, instead of the double-digit increases Wall Street has come to expect, sent the value of Nike shares down to $56 from a high of $90 only a few quarters earlier. Knight said Nike's response would be to continue its "relentless strategy" to invest abroad and "strengthen the brand."
"We'll keep pushing wherever we can," says Knight, "because an essential part of this culture says that we're a growth company. The idea of Nike as some sort of stable, slow-growing, high-dividend-paying company doesn't compute around here."
Senior executives talk of Nike's becoming "an experience company" and an entertainment corporation of the future. They talk of a Nike theme park loaded with digitized virtual reality booths in which participants can virtually experience the best golf holes in the world or go one-on-one with Jordan or those who come after him. An alliance with director George Lucas's Lucasfilm is in the works to develop futuristic sports entertainments. "Retailing and entertainment are moving together," Knight says. "If you look at Nike Town, at the talent we have and at the sports agency business, you can sec new directions."
Knight says he also wouldn't rule out buying a team or other sports-related companies, if promoting, protecting and controlling the brand and Nike's carefully wrought image is the result. During the first week in August, Phoenix Sun owner Jerry Colangelo announced that he was trying to draft Knight as a co-owner of a franchise that would bring major league baseball to Phoenix. Meetings have also been held to discuss a Nike-backed pro basketball league in Asia, and the company has even floated the idea of sponsoring a college football national championship playoff. "But I do want to stop fighting so much with governing bodies and leagues," Knight says. "It's easier to fight when you're the little guy. Even though we still think the old way, being Number One means that you simply can't fight all the time. We have to start waiting for the really big fights."